Went to check in on my mama the other day and found her in the kitchen, sweeping the floor, as usual. She was wearing my dad’s old L.L. Bean moccasins, the ones with the smooth soles, the ones he wore every day, and I didn’t want to interrupt so I sat at the kitchen table and watched, listening to those shoes soft-shuffle behind the switch-switch of her broom.
And because I wondered what was going through her mind when she swept — she does this several times a day, and has for as long as I can remember — I asked her, “How long you been sweeping, Mom?” and she looked up and said just a few minutes, and I said, “No, I mean how long in your life?”
And she said, “Since I was 6 years old.”
Sixty years ago, my mother spent most of her time at her grandmother’s house in Julian, a two-story, six-room farmhouse with three porches: a great, wide front porch 40 feet long, a side porch, and a back porch.
The front porch was scattered with stray ladder-backs and rockers; nothing matched. My mother’s grandfather, Papaw, brought in wood for the kitchen cookstove through the side porch and carted in water from the well. A wringer washing machine stood on the back porch.
Those porches, either for work or for socializing, were where everybody congregated.
Back then, my mom told me, nobody went anywhere. Papaw walked to the store for groceries. Neighbors came over and sat. My mom and her grandmother — Granny — cut up watermelon on those porches, and shelled butter beans and peas out there, too, enamelware pails anchored between their knees, peas rat-a-tatting into them.
Twice a day, morning and night, Granny took her broom to the porches — there was always something to clean up. She swept down the front porch first, starting at the eaves and sweeping out spiderwebs, breaking up dirt daubers’ nests, then flipped over all the chairs and swept the undersides and slats, straightening them back up, and finally the floor itself.
My mother, a little girl then, watched Granny’s every motion, and before long, she picked up a broom and started sweeping, too, and since then, I’ve known her to sweep every day, all these years — the crumbs from the crust of a pie after my dad couldn’t wait to cut a slice, carrying his piece on a paper plate to the den to eat in front of the television on the nights Carolina was playing; the dog hair shed from our old beagle, Muffin, after a morning of warming her stiff legs in the sun by the front door; eraser shavings brushed onto the floor from nights I sat at the dining table and cried because I couldn’t understand my math homework; sawdust my dad tracked in after a day in the garage building his birdhouses, and, later, the birdseed that found its way past the threshold after he’d filled up the seven feeders in the backyard; the clods of red dirt that came off his shoes after planting tomatoes; the wisps of his hair — before they married, she’d gone to beauty school, and for 45 years, my dad never had anyone cut his hair but her.
I watch my mom sweep a floor that has less traffic now, less activity, but she keeps going. She sweeps the corners, her broom clearing the cobwebs and brushing away the gauze of memory, and I am amazed and grateful that such a small task can do so much to make everything feel so fresh and bright.
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